Most Land Reform Efforts Fail
|January 17, 2006||Posted by Staff under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Most Land Reform Efforts Fail
Bolivia: The Agrarian Reform That Wasn’t
Here is an in-depth report being circulated by various sources. We believe it originally appeared at upsidedownworld.org
by Leila Lu
According to the United Nations, as of October 2005, 100 families control over 25 million hectares of land in Bolivia while 2 million campesino (farmer/peasant) families have, combined, access to 5 million hectares of land. The wealthiest 100 landowners possess five times more land than 2 million small landowners.
The UN Development Report goes on to state that it is precisely this inequality that is the principal cause of Bolivias political and social instability, fuelling constant conflicts between a tiny elite and the general population.
According to the World Bank, in Latin America the average discrepancy between the wealth of the richest fifth of the population and the poorest fifth of the population is 30:1. In Bolivia it is 90:1. If cities are excluded from the measurement, it is 170:1.
But What About Agrarian Reform?
After 52 years of weak agrarian reform, Bolivian agriculture is still divided into two distinct tendencies: enormous latifundios (estates), vast territories in which only a small part is used for productive agriculture — and hundreds of thousands of tiny, over cultivated properties owned by indigenous and/or campesino farmers. Despite the fact that campesino farmers occupy a much smaller portion of land, they have higher agricultural productivity and supply more food to the local economy then the latifundios, which overwhelmingly cultivate plantation-style agriculture — vast expanses of a single crop such as soya, sugar, rice or cotton destined for export and dependent on the usage of large quantities of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.
So how is it that after a peasant revolution in 1952 and more than fifty years of agrarian reform, today the average campesino from the west or center of the country has less land then they started with?
Technically, the agrarian reform laws are still on the books. All land must complete a social/economic function, or else it reverts back to the state. The state engaged in an intensive process of land grants and agricultural development financing throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. On paper, Bolivia should be a reformed country. However …
The more things change…
Since colonization by the Spanish, the territory now known as Bolivia has been marked by political and economic domination of a small elite and a feudal economic system. Independence did not result in a full break of the social structures set in place by Spain. In effect, feudal structures such as haciendas and latifundios (large landholdings worked by indigenous labour without pay) remained practically unchanged throughout the first epoch of the Republics history, especially in the eastern provinces of Santa Cruz, Beni and Pando (collectively known as the Oriente or Tierras Bajas).
According to Carlos Ramiro Bonifaz, director of the Centre of Judicial Studies and Social Investigation, the dominant land-owning classes of the region developed systems of wealth accumulation based on the exploitation of the indigenous labour force (i.e. using their monopoly to charge workers exorbitant prices for basic necessities, resulting in the creation of debt and subsequent servitude), rather then the re-investment of capital or technological development. Instead, the wealth of elites went towards the purchase of imported status symbols.
After the Revolution of 1952, a land reform program was implemented which aimed to change these tendencies. The program was directly influenced by the US-authored Plan Bohan, with the goal of state-led capitalization and industrialization of agriculture (hopefully diffusing peasant unrest while simultaneously providing a new market for US produced agri-chemicals and machinery.) Large properties were designated the social function of “agricultural enterprises”, lent prodigious amounts of money with which to obtain modern technology, and informed that they were now obliged to pay salaries (food and clothing also considered acceptable currency) to the influx of workers and settlers arriving from the western part of the country. These loans were awarded in a pattern of corruption.
This process was accompanied by an extensive program of land grants. From 1953 to 1993, more than 26 million hectares of land were granted in the Oriente. However, of this land, more then 87.5% was given to the wealthiest (in terms of property ownership) half of recipients, while the remaining half received 12.5% of grants. Today, 55% of farm properties are squeezed into less the one percent of cultivated land.
It is important to remember that almost all of the “unowned” land that was granted was in fact inhabited by indigenous populations. In effect, the land reform program was used by the dominant classes to extend their holdings and develop interests in commercial agriculture and modern ranching. In the years of the Banzer dictatorship (1971-1978), this cronyism reached staggering proportions — 116,647 hectares granted to the Antelo family, 96,874 hectares granted to the Gutierrez family, 115,646 hectares granted to the Elsner family (plus a further 73,690 hectares given individually to Guillermo Bauer Elsner), etc
All this, however, apparently was not enough to ensure the success of the Agricultural Enterprises. Due to the persistent habit of loans remaining unpaid, the Agricultural Bank was forced to close in the 1980s — this after a state-ordered forgiveness of 44.5 million dollars in loans belonging to some 726 cotton-enterprise owners and some 188 soy enterprise-owners. Not to mention absorption of some 5.8 million dollars in private debts with the Bank of Brasil and 1.8 million dollars in private debts with CitiBank. The combined effect of these pardons was one of the major causes of the hyperinflation that Bolivia experienced in the 1980´s, resulting in the further impoverishment of the general population and an IMF imposed stabilization program that gutted “useless” public services such as health and education, and privatized the profitable ones.
When control of the political apparatus is not sufficient to gain desired results, large landowners often turn to violence.
“Between November 2001 and the end of 2002, 10 campesinos were murdered in the Oriente due to conflicts over land, and many social leaders, institutional representatives, human rights defenders etc have been victims of criminal aggression from those who would prefer that the situation of agrarian rights is not clarified.”
The current situation in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia is one in which a small elite dominates the political process, with the result that the primary function of government has been to oversee their interests and protect the existing status quo from turbulence. Unlike the western part of the country (Occidente/Tierras Altas), where well organized movements demanding a redistribution of power have achieved a situation where they are capable of shutting down business-as-usual and changing state policies detrimental to the majority of the population (reversing water privatization, gas exports, etc) and have a clearly articulated program for change (an end to the disastrous neocon/neoliberal experiment, universal benefits from natural resources such as natural gas, real land reform, creation of a directly democratic Constituent Assembly, reconstitution of indigenous territory and sovereignty, and the creation of a pluri-national state), the balance of power in the Oriente is still in the hands of the oligarchy.
This is not to say that people are not organizing — there is an active Landless Movement (MST), and indigenous and campesino organizations and confederations — but the process is nascent in comparison with the Occidente.
However, Bolivia is not neatly divided into two distinct halves. A direct result of land scarcity has been migration to urban centers, and migration from the Occidente to the Oriente. In Santa Cruz one overhears Quechua and Ayamara being spoken, and many inhabitants of the city have origins in other areas of the country.
The real frustration that people feel with the central government in La Paz, with all government, will not be resolved by any measure that does not deal with the reality of the state serving as a direct instrument of class oppression and protector of the interests of the privileged elite. What is needed is redistribution — of land and of decision making power. The way to peace in Bolivia is very simple: justice.
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